The Meaning of Masonry
A Voyage through the Psyche
by Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D. 32°
(Originally published in the Lake Harriet Harald, May/June 2009)
For the past couple of months the Lake Harriet S.A.G.E.S. study group has been reading and discussing W. L. Wilmshurt's book The Meaning of Masonry. This book, published in the 1920's by an illustrious British brother is a classic of Masonic literature and very thought-provoking. I would like to share with you some of his ideas and a few of my own.
We all know that the "meaning of Masonry" is something that every brother must discover for himself. Indeed, that act of searching for the Lost Word and discovering it for ourselves is at the very core of Freemasonry. Nevertheless, it is interesting and instructive to read the result of one brother's quest for light and Bro. Wilmshurst had some remarkable ideas. Like most books of this sort, the author presents his interpretation of the lodge, officers, and rituals of the craft as if they were the "correct" interpretations, as if here one could find the true ancient intentions of the Mysteries. In fact, a cornerstone of his argument is his interpretation of the ancient mystery schools, such as those of Greece and Egypt. Those mysteries focus on a dying and resurrected god-man who represents in allegorical form the regeneration of the human psyche.
Wilmshurst does not take the central mystery of Masonic initiation as merely an affirmation of our belief in Eternal Life, much less a representation of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. For this author the rituals of the lodge are a psycho-drama, an intricate coded dramatization of the parts of the human being. He begins by considering the geometric symbolism of the apron. We all learn that white symbolizes purity and innocence, the open heart and mind of the candidate that Masons work to keep pure throughout their lives. But Wilmshurst suggests that the apron and the progressive ways it is worn and adorned are intended to symbolize the development of our being – our bodies, minds, souls, and spirit.
The triangular flap of the apron symbolizes the Divine and its three qualities All-Knowing, All-Powerful, and Always Everywhere. The rectangular lower part of the apron symbolizes the four-square world of the body, that is, material existence. The number four denotes the four cardinal directions, the four winds, and the plane of life on the level of time. When the flap is worn upwards by the apprentice, it shows that he is still at the level of the material world but is aspiring upward to spiritual light. When the flap is turned down, it shows that the Fellowcraft has brought down the power of the spirit into his corporeal being. Basing his thoughts on British aprons, Bro. Wilmshurst goes on to suggest that the blue border and blue rosettes with silver tassels depending from them symbolize the Master Mason's firmer connection to the world of spirit – the heavens signified by sky blue – and the divine light streaming downward into his being.
Having drawn so much from the geometry of the apron, you may begin to imagine what the author draws from the lodge room and its officers. Among his insights is to note that the direction the candidate travels around the altar is always sunwise. Moreover, he enters in the North, the quarter of darkness that signifies the world of the senses unenlightened by spiritual insight. He travels to the east, the source of light and then with the course of the Sun, south and west tracing symbolically the growing of spiritual light, and also the decline of a man's powers at the end of his corporeal lifespan. In the multiple perambulations of the altar, we may consider the symbolism of the perpetual journey of the soul, ever born and dying to be reborn again.
Wilmshurst comes from a background of Theosophy, which was a spiritual movement that sought to unite science and spirituality. In doing so, the Theosophists drew on the religious philosophies of India and Tibet, and key among those was the doctrine of reincarnation and karma. In this teaching, the individual soul progresses through rounds of incarnation in many forms, mineral, vegetable, animal, and human, and finally divine. The soul is purified by many lifetimes in which a man's good works refine his soul so that it may pass on to a higher form. Even in human form, there are degrees from base to enlightened. The spiraling up (or down) this ladder depends on one's work in life – that is on one's doing good and evil to others.
One can see how such a religious teaching is potentially quite compatible with the philosophy of Freemasonry. Christian religious teachings engage in the same kind of speculation when they address the matter of grace, faith, and works as necessary to achieving Salvation. One major difference between the Eastern and Western religions is that in the East an individual goes through many lifetimes to improve himself while in the West, only one lifetime is allowed to accomplish that task.
Wilmshurst writes as a Christian but his ideas are colored by some other Theosophical ideas. For example, the idea that our being is made up of many layers. Body, soul, and spirit had for the Theosophists a precise meaning, denoting successively more "subtle" layers of being, often envisioned as "subtle bodies." This view of our human being informs his interpretation of the lodge officers. First of all, I should say that he leaves out the Treasurer and Secretary as officers with mundane functions. The rest of the lodge officers, however, function as symbols of the parts of the human psyche.
I will work inward from the door. The lodge door represents the "doorways of perception" as William Blake called them. They are guarded by the Tyler, who we might consider our outward persona, a mask we wear that includes our social roles and conventional behaviors. This mask stands guard over the entrance to our inner life. Inside a British lodge there is an officer called the Inner Guard who communicates between the Junior Warden and the Tyler, and who is also armed with a poignard (a sort of short thin sword). This weapon is used when conducting candidates that they may feel the point at their breast even as they are conducted about the lodge. To understand the symbolic role of the Inner Guard we must first know that of the Junior Warden.
The Junior Warden's jewel represents the Sun and his duties are clearly linked to the observation of the Sun. This solar power in the psyche may be likened to our Ego, that complex of identity and memory at the center of consciousness. It is the Ego that organizes our conscious mind and interacts with the waking world of the senses. His association with Beauty may signify his connection to the world of the senses, for the aesthetic sense is not only how we perceive beauty, but how we perceive everything around us. The Junior Warden governs the lodge when at refreshment and this is symbolic for everyday life. Our Ego governs our behavior in everyday life, and for the ordinary man, this may be all the awareness he has. He may never open his symbolic lodge, but always deal outwardly with a world perceived as alien, separate, and even hostile.
The Senior Warden in the West represents the Soul which is associated with the Moon. The Junior Deacon's rod bears the Moon as its emblem, which signifies the communication of the light of the soul to the Ego. For the Soul (Greek psyche) may be considered to be the center of our unconscious mind. The line of communication between the Ego and the Soul is the first requisite of the regeneration of the spiritual man. As the psychologist Carl Jung suggested, the journey to understand ourselves commences with the act of turning the Ego's gaze inward to confront our Unconscious.
As Wilmshurst points out, the Moon does not generate light on its own. The Soul likewise derives its power from something else. We are given the hint in the description of the three lesser lights – the Sun, the Moon, and the Master of the Lodge. The Ego shines brilliantly like the Sun and appears to be the center of our being. The Senior Warden derives his power from the Master as the Moon reflects the light of the Sun. Is this a contradiction? Should not the Master be equated with the Sun, in that case? And here is a key insight of Masonry. The Master represents the Divine spark in each of us, something that rules over both the conscious and unconscious mind. Wilmshurst identifies the Master with the Will or the Spirit. The Spirit in man transcends corporeal life. The soul organizes all of the unconscious aspects of that life, including our emotions and feelings. The Soul is the center of our Inner Life, but he Spirit is the animating and organizing complex of the mind that creates a whole out of the Solar and Lunar halves of our being.
The Senior Deacon's rod bears the emblem of the Sun, and this is another clue to the relationship between the Spirit and the Soul. For until the Spirit commands the Soul, our lodge cannot be opened. Neither our Ego, nor our Soul on their own have the ability to open the lodge. That is, they cannot open our being to its higher dimensions. The Spirit, which is the source of Will, is the inner fire, the Light from which is our Higher Self. Mystery traditions have often referred to the idea of a Higher Self, something that touches the Divine in each person and is not debased by the mundane world and its physical distractions. The Sun on the Senior Deacons rod symbolizes this Quality of the Spirit to act as the true center of our being, our Inner Sun, if you will.
The Master of the Lodge symbolizes the Master of the Mysteries. Depending on one's religious beliefs he might be the Christian Master, Buddha, Krishna, or any other Divine Son of Man. The point being that he represents Man in his regenerated form. Why "regenerated"? Because, as Bro. Wilmshurst says, all the great mystery traditions teach that Man is fallen from perfection and glory. As C. G. Jung put it, the human condition is one of fragmentation striving after wholeness. This idea of Wholeness is closely linked to God, who is, after all, Everything. God is the Ultimate Whole. If we are, in turn, part of God, and have forgotten the fact, then God's wholeness is fractured and broken and God is striving to draw us back to the awareness of our unity with that Whole. Like a hologram that has been shattered, every tiny piece of the broken picture contains the whole picture. In like way, every human being contains the whole picture of God and the Universe.
This is the symbolism of the lodge and its officers. Next time you watch the opening and closing of the lodge or one of the degrees consider these veiled meanings. Consider the implications of the absolute authority of the Spirit over our inner and outer life. Consider how the Ego, in order to be rejoined to the whole personality must abdicate its illusory kingship. The Ego must become aware that it is not the center of the whole, but only the center of consciousness, and that its power comes from deeper within. Consider how the Soul is in charge of the lodge when it is "at labor" – that is, when it is engaged in the important inner work that happens within the Unconscious.
We must, in this view, learn that we are more than the conscious Ego. We are even more than the Soul that animates us and organizes the treasure-house of memory. We are our Higher Self. We are each Master, if we chose to become aware of it. And the way to become aware of these inner truths is by opening our lodge and doing the spiritual inner work necessary to become fully aware of who we really are. Many men never pass beyond the Tyler – they are scarcely even aware of having an Ego as an inward center of consciousness. For the first stage in human development is to become aware of the senses and interact with the outer world. This happens gradually after we have been born – passing between the two great pillars. It happens without any effort on our part. The second stage of development is truly our first "step" in ascending the staircase, for that is when we ascend to the level of the Junior Warden, and become self-aware that we have an inner being beyond our physical bodies. The second step is awareness of that more subtle part of our being, our Soul. In the winding staircase, the third step is associated with the Master, but rising to that level we have only just embarked on the most difficult part of our journey.
The five steps and the seven that follow symbolize our further development, a heightened awareness of our senses and our intellectual and abstract understanding of the world. This heightened understanding of the educated man, is dependant in the first instance upon his coming to grips with his own Soul, his own unconscious. If he does not work from the Soul, then we find that sort of sterile intellect in which the Ego tries to ascend the steps alone. He may become "educated" and even "sophisticated" but at the top of the steps he does not find God or the Master within. He finds nothing.
That is why, in our rituals, the candidate (the awakening Man) is conducted by the Senior Deacon. For he is the projected Will of the Higher Self, the Master. And we must follow the direction of that Divine Will that moves at our true center in order to discover, after our aesthetic and intellectual development that inner mystery of our Spirit flowing from the Divine Whole. Jung called this process "individuation." It does not exactly mean "to become an individual." Rather, it means to heal the inner divisions in our whole personality and overcome the Ego's fearful tyranny and put it in its proper place. There is even perhaps symbolic meaning to bestowing the Junior Warden's jewel upon a candidate. We are placing him in the seat of the Ego and teaching him that this seat is not his final destination.
The Death and Rebirth of the ancient mysteries signifies regeneration of the whole being, a rebirth that connects all our disconnected parts. And that is at least one of the possible Meanings of Masonry.